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Society & Culture

American Illness

Jun 17, 2020
  • Wu Baiyi

    Research Fellow, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

The COVID-19 pandemic is a major test for humanity. That the response to the novel coronavirus by the United States has been so alarmingly awkward goes beyond many people’s imagination. The number of infections and deaths in the U.S. account for a third of the global total.

Over the past weeks, the country that has bragged about being “a light on a hill” has sunk into sustained social unrest. As pressure mounts to restart the economy, demands for civil rights, abrasive partisan competition and unrestrained public opinion combine to worsen the situation. Chaos and division are suffocating the people.

Some individuals of insight in the U.S. have lamented that the country is ill, and the illness is getting worse. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been straightforward in saying the problems of the U.S. lie in the fact that the gap between rich and poor is too great. But a wealth gap is a natural phenomenon in the development of all societies. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 10 million poor people in the U.S., around one-eighth of the total population. Tensions in society were imaginable, yet there had never been an all-around social revolution in the country. Instead, class conflict was eased through a series of systemic revisions.

After World War II, the average annual wage of American workers increased 9 percent a year. By the 1960s, American residents’ spending on housing, medical services, transportation and entertainment was double the spending on needs such needs as food and clothing. In the 21st century, however, the number of middle-class American had dropped. Income levels for most people also fell, with the wealth structure of society turning from olive-shaped to dumbbell-shaped.

In the fall of 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. seized headlines and lasted almost six months. The current large-scale protests going on across the U.S. are an echo. Facing the phenomenon of social upheavals at increasingly shorter intervals, why have America’s rectification mechanisms repeatedly failed? Of all the possible explanations, I believe there are three main reasons — and they are irreversible:

First, an increasingly serious hollowing out of the economic structure has made it impossible for the cake of social distribution to be made larger. Economic globalization over the past three decades has been characterized by internet technology and the flat distribution of industry chains.

While dominating and profiting from the process, U.S. capital has at the same time created a hollowing-out trap for its domestic economy. The large-scale outflow of industries has shifted core U.S. competitiveness toward such areas as technological R&D and financial services at the top of global value chains. Its revenues from foreign trade in goods decreased, while at the same time general manufacturing and its capacity for job creation withered. The social outcome on one hand is constantly promoting the concentration of American wealth, and on the other continuously narrowing channels for upward mobility.

Worse, thanks to consecutive years of federal deficits   and a continuously high level of deficits (expected to reach 152 percent of GDP this year), the U.S. government has to prioritize ensuring growth and reducing emphasis on social welfare spending. The room for institutional adjustment in “second-time distribution” is severely reduced.


Second, with the proportion of military spending constantly rising, the hole of the U.S. financial deficits keeps enlarging. In an era dominated by a virtual economy, the financial industry and dollar hegemony are the lifeline of the U.S., whose global credibility relies mainly on its military dominance. This resulted in a tightly woven interest chain, where major financial groups, the military-industrial complex and even science and technology R&D institutions and think tanks form special interest groups. Imagined enemies are created, and the authorities are lobbied to launch the war machine.

The outcome is that while financial hegemony and consecutive years of fighting have brought dirty profits to the minority, the welfare of the U.S. public is squandered.

Last and most important, American political practice has seriously deviated from the original intent of the designers of U.S. democratic institutions. According to a Princeton University survey, no matter whether the public support for a certain bill is 30 percent or 100 percent, it has no influence on whether it passes or fails in Congress. The truth is that every congress member has to devote 70 percent of his or her energy to fundraising for re-election — an average 45,000 dollars a day — and their sponsors are limited to big corporations and interest groups, which account for a mere 0.05 percent of the U.S. population.

Politics speaks and acts for the rich, while topics involving the general public's livelihood, such as poverty, medical services, housing and the environment, have to take a back seat.

With such a vicious circle constantly repeating itself, wide gaps in American society keep widening, the room for institutional compromise keeps shrinking and national decision-making drifts further and further away from the “people first” principle.

People were once used to addressing the regrettable phenomenon of the longstanding imbalance in economic structure resulting from short-sighted decision-making — for example “Dutch disease” or “Latin American disease.” To date, however, nobody has dared to call the profound changes “American disease.” In the international public sphere long dominated by the rhetoric of U.S. authorities, even with increasing clues pointing to a great American illness, well-wishers continued to cherish fantasies about its “capacity for self-rectification.” Is there a cure for the American disease?

Reality shows that the ossification of social interests results in rigidity of political systems, making top-to-bottom changes unlikely. Bottom-to-top ones, however, need to be pushed by the American people.

God bless America — but it’s people who are the gods when it comes to determining the fate of the country.

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